Florida lawmakers reach deal on state budget, with $6.6 billion in COVID relief spending

Gray Rohrer, Orlando Sentinel
·4 min read

TALLAHASSEE — More than $6.6 billion in federal COVID-19 aid for Florida will be used on environmental, school construction and road projects, bonuses for first responders and an emergency response fund. It’s all part of a budget deal lawmakers sealed on Monday night.

There’s also a boost in funding for Visit Florida tourism marketing from $50 million to $75 million and to pay for new aircraft for a state agency, all helping to pad budgets for programs already in a state budget that’s expected to top $100 billion.

Democrats have criticized GOP leaders for not including money for health care programs, since the money is supposed to help cover spending issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. They have laid out a plan, rejected by the Republican leadership, to spend the money on rent relief, affordable housing, $1,000 direct payments to tourism industry workers who lost their jobs due to the pandemic and $25,000 grants to small businesses that suffered because of the pandemic.

“We have the better plan of how we disperse those funds,” said Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale. “How many Republicans (in Congress) voted for (the American Rescue Plan)? Some consideration should be given to what the Democrats are asking for since none of their Republican colleagues in Washington had the wherewithal to support it.”

Some of the money will go to first responders – police officers, nurses, firefighters, prison guards and emergency medical technicians – in the form of $1,000 bonuses, part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recommendations for how to spend the federal funds. Teachers, too, will get $1,000 bonuses, as well as a $50 million boost to salaries, which will be negotiated among school districts.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, the Senate’s top budget writer, defended the GOP’s approach to spending the relief money, pointing to the bonuses and noting the cuts to Medicaid and other health care programs that were proposed earlier in the session were reversed as part of the budget deal.

She also stressed that the federal funds are one-time money so spending them on infrastructure projects and environmental clean-up projects will help the state’s economy rebound from the pandemic and prevent large programs from relying on funding that won’t be there in future years.

“We don’t know what next year is going to look like and we don’t want to people to get used to a higher budget when we’re not sure that’s going to be sustainable,” Stargel said.

Stargel and her House counterpart, Rep. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, also met Monday evening to pour nearly $350 million in state funds into special projects and to shore up programs overlooked in initial budget talks.

About $80.6 million is slated to reduce the waitlist for those in need of services from the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. Another $1.2 million will be given to DeSantis to boost the salaries of his agency directors, most of whom make $140,000 per year.

Another DeSantis wishlist, $50 million for his Job Growth Grant Fund, a program allowing him to allot grants for road or workforce training projects, was added to the budget using federal funds as part of the final budget deal.

Visit Florida saw its funding increase apparently to help the state’s struggling tourism industry recover from the pandemic.

The deal likely means the final state budget will top $100 billion for the first time in Florida’s history.

The spending plan should be printed and put on lawmakers’ desks by Tuesday, allowing them to meet the constitutionally required 72-hour “cooling off” period before legislators can vote on the budget by Friday, the scheduled last day of the legislative session.

Florida is slated to receive $10.2 billion in federal money as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden last month. But Stargel said the state is unsure of when the money will arrive and have held back $3.6 billion in reserves, to use in the next fiscal year.

Even the money for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1, is contingent on receiving the funds from the federal government.